Climate change: Evidence of capitalism's death-wish

By Renfrey Clarke

April 26, 2014 -- Green Left Weekly -- If modern industrial capitalism were a person, he or she would be on suicide watch. The system that has brought us quantum physics and reality television, modern medicine and the columns of Andrew Bolt is set on a course which, by all the best reckoning, points directly to its doing itself in.

If capitalism goes on — everything goes. Climate, coastlines, most living species, food supplies, the great bulk of humanity. And certainly, the preconditions for advanced civilisation, perhaps forever.

Moreover, we’re not just talking risk, in the sense of an off-chance. These are the most likely outcomes for capitalism’s current policies and performance in the area of climate change.

As far back as 2010 the famed US paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson told a gathering of scientists in Phoenix, Arizona: “Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group … Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”

Rulers in the capitalist world are not remotely contemplating action on the scale needed to contain the crisis. In recent years, the Climate Action Tracker, a scientific partnership that includes Germany’s high-powered Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has issued an annual report detailing the climate commitments of governments around the world, and spelling out the implications for global warming. The most recent report, from last November, concludes: “Weak government action on climate change will lead to a projected 3.7°C of warming by 2100.”

Almost certainly, though, the warming that will result if action is limited to current promises will be much greater than this. Like the reports issued in recent months by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Climate Action Tracker figures do not take account of so-called “slow feedbacks”. These are factors, such as the melting of polar ice and releases of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost, that cut in only on a time-frame of decades to centuries.

The world at 4°C

Supposing, however, that the temperature rise late in the century was a mere 4°C, what would the resulting world be like? In 2010, climatologist Rachel Warren, of Britain’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, made this prediction: “In such a 4°C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world. Hence, the ecosystem services upon which human livelihoods depend would not be preserved.”

If the limits for adaptation of natural systems are crossed, the ecosystems must soon collapse. Without the services provided by these ecosystems, human beings will not survive in large numbers.

Largely responsible for this “population crash” would be a collapse of food supplies. In a four-degree world, weather would be far more erratic, veering between mega-floods and severe, extended droughts. Key food-bowl regions would on average be markedly drier, while fertile coastal lowlands would be affected by sea-level rise. Following the extinction of countless species, the remnant ecosystems would be chaotically unstable, further restricting agriculture.

One of the recent IPCC summaries predicts declining crop yields from about 2030. An analysis of 1700 datasets for wheat, rice and maize, performed by researchers at the University of Leeds, points to widespread reductions in yields of 25% later in the century. These reductions, however, would be multiplied by the effects of extreme social crisis.

Food insecurity, as it became acute, could be expected to set off wars over water supplies and remaining patches of viable farmland. These conflicts would take a horrific toll not just on populations, but also on technology and infrastructure, further reducing agricultural output.

The “5% by 2020” emissions reduction target shared by the Labor Party and the Coalition in Australia is laughable. The Climate Action Tracker says this target is consistent with a global pathway leading to temperature rises of 3.5-4°C.
Both major parties in Australia plan to fail on climate change, overseeing a climate disaster. But it is the Coalition’s death-wish that is perhaps the more fervent. Analysing Australian climate policies, the Climate Action Tracker observes: “The Abbott Government’s proposed Direct Action programme lacks the resources to meet the 5% from 2000 reduction goal and instead could lead to emissions of about 12% above 2000 levels by 2020.”

These calculations leave out the greenhouse impacts of Australia’s coal exports on the basis that the emissions will be released overseas. But Australia’s recoverable reserves of black coal alone contain more carbon than is ever likely to be extracted from the Canadian tar sands.

Compulsions of capitalism

What is it about capitalism that the system wilfully pursues strategies that look certain to bring about its own demise?

The answer lies in the fact that while an unaddressed climate crisis will be lethal to capitalism, the solutions to the crisis also promise to bring the system down — and sooner. The capitalists’ dilemma becomes clearer if we list some of the key measures required:

  • At least two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground. That is billions of dollars effectively written off.
  • Material and financial resources need to be reoriented, in a concerted way, from the pursuit of maximum profit toward achieving rapid declines in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • This reorientation of the economy will need to include a large element of direct state spending, structured around long-term planning and backed by tightening regulation. Schemes such as carbon pricing cannot play more than a limited, subsidiary role.
  • To keep mass living standards at the highest levels consistent with these measures, and ensure popular support, the main costs of the reorientation need to be levied on the wealthy.

Can anyone imagine the world’s capitalist elites agreeing to such measures, except perhaps under the most extreme popular pressure?

To address just the first point, the underground reserves of fossil fuels owned by energy companies make up a large slice of the capitalisation of stock markets around the world. If the bulk of these assets were written off, the shock to global capitalism would be cataclysmic. The capitalists as a class would resist such a move furiously, and indeed violently.

Ironically, saving the climate would not be particularly expensive compared with outlays the capitalist system regularly makes — particularly on its armed forces. The IPCC calculates that the “cost” of keeping global temperature rises to 2°C would be to reduce the median annual growth of consumption over this century by a mere 0.06%.

The problem is not the overall cost, but the priorities and compulsions of capitalism. At the core of humanity’s climate quandary is the fact that it is hard to imagine a system less suited to halting climate change than the one that now rules us.

Capitalist firms have no choice but to try to maximise profits and growth rather than address social needs. If they fail to concentrate on these private priorities, they are soon outcompeted and ruined. In strictly private terms, carbon polluting can make for a killer bottom line. But this privately rational choice will, in time, be collectively catastrophic.

Something of the same logic applies on the international scale. National capitalist classes are compelled to compete against one another. Defending the collective profitability of their backers, each capitalist government seeks to be the last to sign on to emissions abatement agreements, while making the weakest undertakings.

Under fire from environmentalists, capitalist governments promote measures designed to make “green” investing more profitable than the alternatives. But these schemes are not remotely adequate. Climate scientist Kevin Anderson argues convincingly that the marginal changes in investment that result from ploys such as carbon markets are completely insufficient for bringing about the cuts in emissions — as much as 10% a year in the case of advanced countries — that are needed.

A further reason why capitalism is so poorly suited to dealing with climate change is the system’s inherent short-termism. Typically, companies aim to invest capital and secure returns over a cycle lasting five years or less. If firms spend big sums on long-term goals, their overall capital turnover tends to be slower than that of their rivals, and their profitability falls. Before long they are out of business.

Dealing with climate change, however, requires investing now to halt processes whose effects may only become lethal in another half-century. Capitalism has great difficulty looking that far ahead.

Of course, the system has a collective instrument — the state — designed to referee conflicts between capitalists and ensure that the overriding interests of their class are defended. But what if most capitalists decide that long-term action to combat climate change would threaten their near-term profits? And what if the state itself is captured by a few huge corporations that are also big polluters?

What if a decision of the US Supreme Court allows big fossil fuel corporations to buy the Congress? What if Clive Palmer takes his coal billions and sets out to win the balance of power in the Australian Senate?

The timelines of climate catastrophe are long, and in capitalism’s systemic suicide it is not, on the whole, today’s corporate chiefs who are fated to perish. Theirs is strictly a proxy death-wish. The brief, unhappy lives and early graves are to be the lot, mostly, of future generations.

As the renowned philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky put it recently, “In the moral calculus of capitalism, greater profits in the next quarter outweigh the fate of your grandchildren.”

All the more reason for working people, who have no stake in the survival of capitalism, to consign the system to the historical dumpster.

From GLW issue 1006